With a head coach purportedly adept at offensive play-calling and working with quarterbacks, the highest paid offensive line in the NFL, and a defense that finally has begun making opposing offenses look only as good as they actually are, one would suspect that the Minnesota Vikings had all their ducks in a row this season. But one would be wrong in so thinking.
Through five games, the Vikings stand at 3-2 and in second place in the NFC North, two games and a tie-breaker behind the Chicago Bears. Making that gap seem even larger is that, on Sunday, the Bears absolutely throttled the Buffalo Bills, a team that the Vikings lost to as a consequence of a dismal offensive performance, while the Vikings were scraping by the dismal Lions.
The Vikings' final 26-17 victory over the Lions doesn't do justice to just how close this game was to being the Lions' first victory of the season. Entering the fourth quarter, the Vikings trailed the Lions 17-3. And, despite moving the ball reasonably well for stretches, the Vikings were still without a touchdown, thanks, in large part, to another red-zone penalty, conservative and questionable offensive play-calling, dismal pass-blocking by the offensive line, and some horribly inept play by quarterback Brad Johnson.
For the fifth time this season, the Vikings had a game in which an offensive penalty derailed a drive inside the opponents' red zone. This time, Bryant McKinnie was the culprit. On the first drive of the game, with the Vikings having the ball 2nd and 9 from the Lions' 10-yard line, McKinnie was called for holding setting the Vikings back to the Lions' 20-yard line. Minnesota got seventeen of those yards back but settled for a chip shot field goal on fourth and two.
Not until the fourth quarter did the Vikings really attempt to move the ball again, settling for numerous pass plays behind the line of scrimmage that averaged approximately zero yards and appeared to have no value as a mechanism for setting up other, less suspect offensive plays.
Even when the Vikings attempted to move the ball in spite of Childress' inclination to settle for two yards per play, the offense had to overcome the ineptitude that continues to be the Vikings' offensive line--a line that opened some holes through which Chester Taylor was able to run on Sunday but which, more often than not, failed to live up to its now clearly fraudulent pre-season billing, particularly with its shoddy pass protection. Against a ragged, injury-ravaged Lions' defense, Johnson was consistently hurried and forced to rush his throws.
And when Johnson did have time to pass, one almost wished he had been sacked to save the pain of watching another horrible pass. In what can best be described as the reincarnation of Kurt Warner at the Metrodome, Johnson did his best to take Minnesota into the bye week a game under .500. Hesitancy passing, settling for pass plays with no prospect of picking up the very makeable first down on third down and short, throwing passes to the opposing team, and tossing yet another pick, Johnson was the reason that the Vikings almost lost today rather than the reason that they won.
But Johnson and the offensive line could not have accomplished all of their dubious feats without the inexplicable assistance of Childress. One series in particular lowlights Childress' implausible accomplishment of turning a mediocre offense run by former, offensively challenged head coach Mike Tice into one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
One sequence, in particular, sums up Childress' approach to calling plays. Facing a third and one from the Lions' 34-yard line, the Vikings opted for a bomb--a la Mike Tice playcalling. That play might have made sense had the receiver not been in double- or triple-coverage and if the Vikings had intended to go for the first down failing a conversion on third down. But neither was the case. Instead, the Vikings opted to line up for a fifty-one yard field goal by a kicker who had just had an extra point attempt blocked.
The long field goal attempt--disastrous if blocked--would have made sense if, in attempting the kick, Childress had reasoned that his defense would be able to stop the Lions if the kick failed. But, rather than attempt the field goal, Childress called for a pooch punt. And that made no sense whatsoever.
Despite the Vikings' futility covering kicks throughout the day, there is absolutely no reason to favor a high risk pooch punt off of a fake field goal attempt over a conventional punt. The fake field goal attempt runs the risk of a bad snap and confusion on the line that could lead to a turnover and there is no discernible added advantage to the ploy over the conventional punt out of bounds.
Moreover, the pooch punt signaled that Childress had confidence in his defense to hold the Lions. And if that was the case all along, why not actually attempt the long field goal? Or, better yet, why not try to convert a fourth and one from the Lions' 34-yard line? And if none of that made sense to Childress, then why not run a high percentage play on third and one rather than a high risk bomb? Maybe Childress was trying to show that a similar unwarranted and unsuccessful risk that he took against Chicago really does work. Or maybe Childress isn't quite the offensive guru that he purports to be.
Should the Vikings fail to reach the playoffs this season, Childress' offensive playcalling and his work with the offensive line will head the list of failures. And that might start a din within the Metrodome, sooner rather than later, of calls for yet another new head coach--defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.
Up Next: Numbers and more numb-ers.